SOFIA women leaders reflect on science, engineering careers

SOFIA’s leadership team, top row from left to right: Hina Kazmi, project manager based at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; Pat Knezek, program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington; Margaret Meixner, director of SOFIA Science Mission Operations at Universities Space Research Association (USRA). Bottom row from left to right: Naseem Rangwala, project scientist at NASA Ames and Alessandra Roy, science manager at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Bonn, Germany. (NASA/SOFIA image)

NASA’s airborne telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, has a leadership team that includes five accomplished women making waves in space science and engineering.
Each brings different backgrounds and perspectives to the task of making this complex international science experiment a success.

The observatory, which is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope, looks out at the universe in a special kind of light called infrared, which is invisible to human eyes. SOFIA can look at distant objects in a part of the infrared spectrum that is inaccessible to any other telescope currently in flight, seeking answers to mysteries about how stars form, the black hole at the center of our galaxy, and more.

SOFIA’s leadership team includes: Hina Kazmi, project manager based at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; Pat Knezek, program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington; Margaret Meixner, director of SOFIA Science Mission Operations at Universities Space Research Association; Alessandra Roy, science manager at the German Aerospace Center in Bonn, Germany, and Naseem Rangwala, project scientist at NASA Ames.

Kazmi, Knezek, Meixner, Roy and Rangwala were asked to reflect on their careers and what excites them about SOFIA.

Hina Kazmi, project manager based at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, standing in front of SOFIA. (NASA/SOFIA photograph)

What first inspired you to go into science or engineering?
Hina Kazmi: I was born in Pakistan. I grew up in the Middle East, and then I moved to the United States when I was in high school. I always wanted to be an aerospace engineer. When I was 13, I said I wanted to work at NASA, be an aerospace engineer. In my teen years, I was obsessed with Amelia Earhart. She was just so original. I always was interested in space, planes, and engineering was always going to be my field.

Pat Knezek: Really it started when my parents used to take me to my grandparents’ farm in Texas, because I grew up in Michigan, where I lived in a suburban area, and it is frequently cloudy. And I’d go there (to the farm) and look out at the sky, and it was so dark that I could see so many stars. And it just fascinated me. And I decided I wanted to become an astronomer as a result of that, and told my parents when I was 12 that I was going to get my Ph.D.

Margaret Meixner: Curiosity. I had a middle school all-sciences class. There was geology, and I was like, “this is cool, I want to be a geologist.” There was meteorology, and “oh, I want to be a meteorologist.” And the last thing was astronomy, and I was like, “this is really cool, we don’t know what’s going on here, I want to do this.” I was much stronger at math and science than English. For me, it naturally augmented because math is easy for me, and I enjoyed it. So, I just continued in that direction. I had a very inspiring middle school teacher.

Alessandra Roy: I am from Italy, near Venice. My father is a chemist, so he introduced me to science early on my life. Starting with an atom, when I was 6, and drawing the atom with the nucleus and the electron running around it. Then of course at the elementary school, there was: What do you want to do as a grown-up? And it was either an astronaut or a scuba diver. I remained focused on the core theme of discovery as I grew up, strengthening my passion for science.

Naseem Rangwala: I grew up in India in a small town and wasn’t exposed to astronomy when I was in my school until I was 15. When I entered high school, I read a chapter on astronomy. That chapter talked about distance scales in the universe. How far the next planet is. How far the end of our solar system is. That made me feel how insignificant, how small we are on this planet. That really triggered something in me.

Naseem Rangwala, project scientist at NASA Ames, standing near the door to enter SOFIA. (NASA/SOFIA photograph)

Tell us about the path that led you to work on SOFIA.
Hina Kazmi: I always was interested in space, planes, and engineering was always going to be my field. I knew that. After working in the private sector for a few years after college, I finally made my way to NASA a few years back. My first introduction to NASA was working on a large NASA project at Boeing on the GOES NOP and then TDRS-KL satellite projects. Shortly after completing my PhD in Public Policy, I wanted to get a taste for the “new” aerospace industry and briefly worked at Virgin Orbit. But, then I got a call from SOFIA and I took the opportunity without thinking twice. I missed being on NASA flight missions. I am thrilled to be back in NASA and working on this most exciting project of my career.

Pat Knezek: I got my Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, and did a postdoc at the University of Michigan but then I decided I really liked working on instruments and for observatories, and so I worked in Chile for Carnegie Observatories for a while. By starting in observatories, I was in a somewhat nontraditional role. But then I decided to go back the States. I worked at Johns Hopkins for a few years and then I worked at Space Telescope Science Institute—that was my first foray into NASA. But then I worked at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory for 12 years, and then was recruited to go to the National Science Foundation. After three years at NSF, I became a senior adviser in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate there. I really wanted an opportunity to learn how NASA did things, and Linda Sparke from the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters talked to me and said, “we’re recruiting for detailees.” I applied and they offered me a job!

Margaret Meixner: After grad school, I actually landed a faculty position at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and worked there for about a decade. I built a near-infrared camera to put on the one-meter telescope they had. I started work on the Next Generation Space Telescope, now called the James Webb Space Telescope, on an ad-hoc mid-infrared instrument science working group. Through a NASA solicitation, I applied for and was selected to be a member of the mid-infrared instrument science team on Webb. Then I moved to Space Telescope Science Institute to get in on the ground floor of working on the operations for the Webb Telescope. I took a sabbatical to serve as the community co-chair for the Origins Space Telescope, one of the four large mission concept studies NASA commissioned for the Astronomy Decadal Survey. I was really enthusiastic about that project. Then this opportunity to apply to be director of SOFIA came up. The wavelength coverage of SOFIA is very similar to Origins, it’s just different capabilities. I’m excited to work on it.

Naseem Rangwala: When I finished my Ph.D. I opted to change my field from optical astronomy to going to much longer wavelengths because the Herschel Space Observatory had just launched. Herschel was a new mission and I wanted to be part of that. I was selected as a Herschel postdoc at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I became really interested in infrared and longer wavelengths, and I also became interested in chemical fingerprints of molecules in the universe. I was a SOFIA user, and then when I came to Ames, I became a NASA postdoctoral fellow. That’s when I was approached by the then-SOFIA project scientist to join the team. And that’s how I made my way up to project scientist.

Alessandra Roy: I studied in Bologna. I took the degree in astronomy. Then I came to Bonn to a two-year fellowship with Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, And then I moved into geodesy where I did my doctorate, which included working with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; we use radio telescopes to measure continental drift. You have telescopes anchored to the different continents and you can see the movement of the continents based on the position with respect to the quasars. This was for 16 years. And then I started to believe that management was a good idea, and so I re-train myself into management and I applied for the position at DLR and I was successful. The job description included working with SOFIA and that was an extra bonus for applying for this position.

Alessandra Roy, science manager at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Bonn, Germany, aboard SOFIA. She’s holding stuffed-animal versions of characters from a German educational television show for which she was interviewed. (NASA/DLR/SOFIA photograph)

What kinds of scientific questions are you interested in?
Hina Kazmi: I’m not a scientist, but part of the reason I wanted to be an aerospace engineer is to understand the larger universe we are all a part of. I’m inspired by every scientific discovery we make with SOFIA, whether it’s in the galactic center or learning about star formation in distant galaxies.

Pat Knezek: What’s the impact of star formation on galaxy evolution? Particularly in these extreme environments where the number of stars forming is relatively few, given the amount of matter to form stars. What drives that? Why is that process so inefficient?

Margaret Meixner: I like to say SOFIA looks at the wavelength range of creation. The interstellar medium is the birthplace for everything. If you want to understand how stars form, how planetary systems form – you need to be observing at that wavelength range. How do you form habitable planetary systems? How did galaxies form and evolve? SOFIA can address a lot of these things in the local universe.

Naseem Rangwala: We want to understand molecules that are important for life — where and how are they formed? Are they formed when a star is born, or when the star is forming, or are they formed in small constituents, which will then combine to form what we think are important for life, like amino acids? And how are they then delivered to planets or solar systems like ours?  When we look at other galaxies where stars are forming at a much higher rate, we wonder: What does the chemical composition look like in those galaxies where they have many more supernovas going off?

Alessandra Roy: Regarding star formation — we should see more stars than we actually do, which tells us that our understanding   is not complete. SOFIA can  help refining our theories , especially with the new polarimeter, HAWC+. This instrument can measure the magnetic field in stellar nurseries, hence helping to prove whether the magnetic field is enhancing  or hindering the formation of stars. Another very interesting topic is also the Galactic center. Why are we a radio quiet galaxy and why is our black hole on a “diet”?

Did you ever feel out of place or uncomfortable as a woman in science or engineering?
Hina Kazmi: In high school, I was in the Middle East; in that culture, women are very limited in technical fields. When I was at Embry Riddle there was a 6:1 ratio for males to females. I’ve just gotten used to it. I think I became numb to it after a while. In the past 10 years, it doesn’t feel like you’re the only female in the room anymore. There are many more now, thankfully. 

Pat Knezek: I was in college, often either the only woman in the room or one of only two in my physics classes. I’m still often the only woman in the room, not so much in the astrophysics division, although there are occasions there, but in meetings in general and things like that. But it is changing, but I am extremely proud of that and delighted by that. The change in 10 years, much less 20+ since I started, has really been phenomenal. I want to see that change not just continue, but accelerate, so that we really reflect the diversity that our country has.

Margaret Meixner: In college, I remember there being one or two women in the physics classes. I said, hey does anyone want to get a study group together? I remember all the guys looking up at me without responding. It didn’t matter because I was always at the top of the curve. I was just sort of stubborn and going to do what I wanted. But I can imagine it is discouraging. And it is isolating. When I landed the faculty position, I remember a male postdoc saying, “wow, I guess they’re really trying to hire women.” You get that throughout your career.

Naseem Rangwala: Coming from my small town, usually it was more challenging for a woman to go abroad for higher studies without getting married or engaged. I was not going to do that at that time (when I was 20) and my parents supported me in that. And I think I may have been one of the first women to leave my community who was not married, and who went abroad, pursued a Ph.D., and I think that allowed a lot of other women in my community to do the same thing. Once one person takes that step, other people will follow. I had no role model in that sense. I had to take that challenge on my own.

Alessandra Roy: Uncomfortable? No. I participated in training schools at the MIT Haystack Observatory as a lecturer and one year, I remember there were about 100  men and me. I was the only female participant.. But it was fine, I didn’t notice. It was at the end, looking at the at the photo — it was like, “Oh, I see!”

What advice would you give young people who want a career like yours?
Hina Kazmi: Start with a strong technical field, whether it’s in the sciences or engineering. To be on leadership path in an environment like NASA, just having a strong technical foundation would help a lot.

Pat Knezek: The basic standard advice is: take math and science classes. Also recognize that a part of being a good scientist which is often not understood is being a good communicator. You have to be able to talk about the research you’re doing in a way that is understandable. So it’s important to learn how to write well, how to speak well, how to listen well.

Margaret Meixner: Work on your math. Math is the language of a lot of things in astrophysics and a lot of things in STEM. Seek out mentors. And, internships help you build areas of interest and expertise. I want to encourage every young girl in the U.S. to consider going into STEM. I’ve found in my career that the most diverse teams that I’ve had have always produced superior products, and it’s really essential that we get more women in the STEM fields.

Naseem Rangwala: Reach out to people to get advice. One thing I missed is: I didn’t have a lot of role models to talk to when I was 15 and 16 years old. If you’ve heard about someone, send them an e-mail. Find out more about what interests you. There are many ways to achieve what you are seeking, so never give up.

Alessandra Roy: If anyone is inspired by something, they should do it. No matter if it is science or other endeavors. They will manage it. With willingness, enthusiasm, and perseverance, goals can be reached. Go ahead. You will make mistakes. There will be problems in your way. But from every mistake you do, you learn something new.

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703, in Palmdale, Calif.

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